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Visiting Historic Aiken, South Carolina

 

Visiting Historic Aiken, South Carolina

By Burt Carey

 

Pick out any 100 people across the country, and only a handful of them will have heard of Aiken, South Carolina, let alone be able to point to it on a map.

Aiken is a small city, numbering about 30,000 people, some 20 miles northeast of Augusta, Georgia. Its close proximity to the city that hosts the world’s most exclusive golf tournament each year would suggest the community embraces that game, a fact borne out by its eight golf courses. But that’s just a sliver of what awaits visitors to this historic community.

Photo credit: Shawn McMillan

Photo credit: Shawn McMillan

Aiken boasts one of the nation’s largest urban forests, the 2,100-acre Hitchcock Woods, which plays an integral part in the city’s equestrian roots. Its longleaf pine forest ecosystem hosted the first Aiken Hunt, an equestrian fox hunt, in 1890, and in 1916 it became home to the annual Aiken Horse Show which will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year.

Hunters and jumpers represent a lion’s share of equestrian activities in Aiken and throughout surrounding Aiken County, but due to influence of Northerners who caught wind of this sleepy little town with its wide double streets and large mansions, polo and thoroughbred racing became staples within the community. Today Aiken is home to Palace Malice, the 2013 Belmont Stakes champion. And it hosts one leg of the prestigious Triple Crown of Polo.

Aiken grew during the Cold War era with the establishment of the Savannah River Site, which locals came to affectionately call “the Bomb Plant.” Nuclear munitions are no longer made there but the 310-square-mile site still employs about 10,000 area residents as retrofitting and dismantling projects continue, and fissile material is are converted into commercial uses.

The city itself was incorporated in 1835 and named after William Aiken, a cotton merchant who was also president of the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company. In 1830 he hired Horatio Allen, the engineer who built the Brooklyn Bridge, to construct a railroad from Charleston to Hamburg, South Carolina. On Oct. 2, 1833, the first train arrived in Aiken.

Soon, wealthy Charlestonians flocked to Aiken during summers as a “place of retreat from the heat and malaria of unhealthier regions.”

Confederate General Joseph Wheeler took up positions in Aiken in 1865 and delivered a rare defeat of General William Sherman’s army, preserving the city from destruction. Thousands of visitors have reveled over the years during annual reenactments of the Battle of Aiken.

Northern visitors came to Aiken to escape brutal winters beginning in the late 1800s. Among them was Thomas Hitchcock and former Secretary of the Navy William C. Whitney. Hitchcock met another New Yorker, Louise Eustis, and married her in 1891. They purchased large tracts of native longleaf forests, started the Aiken Hunt and Aiken Horse Show, and in 1919 founded the Aiken Drag which today is known as the Aiken Hounds. It is the oldest continuous hunting hounds meeting in the country.

A city with so much rich history wouldn’t be viable without museums to tell its story. It is home to the Aiken Historical Museum (433 Newberry St. SW, phone 803.642.2015), the Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum (406 Park Ave. SE, phone 803.293.7846), the Rye Patch Estate House in beautiful Hopeland Gardens (100 Berrie Road, phone 803.642.7650), the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum (135 Dupree Place, phone 803.642.7631), and the recently opened Savannah River Site Museum (in the Dibble Memorial Library at 224 Laurens St., SW).

Aiken, South Carolina, Hitchcock Woods, equestrian activities, Palace Malice, "The Bomb Plant", General Joseph Wheeler, Wilcox Hotel

Visitors looking for a comfortable stay and a splash of history will want to register at the Willcox Hotel (100 Colleton Ave. SW, phone 803.648.1898). In 2012 and 2013 Travel & Leisure magazine named the 19th century hotel the best hotel in the world. Room rates run about $250 per night.

 

Source:  Sportsmans Lifestyle

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